Tor | Ebook (17 January 2017); Pb (13 February 2017) | 305p | Review copy | Buy the book
For the newly cloned there is little worse than a posting to the Citadel, a listening outpost located between galaxies, on the very edge of human-inhabited space. So far away is it that time itself has little meaning. There’s no escape. In time, the clone will retire to the desolate desert rock orbited by the Citadel, and there he or she (but mostly he) will farm or contemplate God. If very lucky he will have the comfort of knowing that a piece of his consciousness has transcended, itself cloned to live another, hopefully happier existence far, far away. This seems unlikely for pilot Ensign Ronaldo Aldo II, clone of Aldo I and similarly lacking in empathy and tact. He’s liked by few – his commanding officer hates him – and he is cursed by bad luck. Things always go wrong when Aldo is around and, even though it’s not his fault if his colleagues die, commit suicide or abscond, nobody wants to get too close.
The Fortress at the End of Time follows Aldo through ten years of misery. First Ensign and then Captain, Ronaldo Aldo has much to endure as he learns more and more about the way that the Citadel works. Corruption seeps through the shoddy walls of this stinking rathole. The fact that there are so few women doesn’t help tempers. People remember what life was like before they were cloned and sent out to the Citadel as if they were no more significant than an email attachment. Aldo made mistakes before and it looks like he’s well on the way to repeating them.
The novel moves between the Citadel and the planet below, which is undergoing the slow process of being terraformed. While people on the Citadel live in squalour, the settlers on the planet are barely surviving at all, watched over constantly by a monastery of untrustworthy brothers. Almost everyone fears the return of an alien force that attacked the station lifetimes ago and is for a return of this enemy that the Citadel listens. This gives Aldo purpose but it could also send him mad.
The premise of The Fortress at the End of Time is extremely appealing, as is the title, and parts of the novel deliver on its promise. It is a very compelling read and once you’re immersed it can be hard to extract yourself. The descriptions of the Citadel and the rock below are very well done, contributing to the mood of remoteness, alienation, abandonment and isolation. One way or another not everyone lasts long out here and this adds to the sense of despair that Aldo must endure every day. There is only a small number of characters and they are deployed very well, forming a tight if disjointed circle and intensifying the claustrophobic atmosphere and feel of a small lifeboat hopelessly adrift. Each of the characters stands out well and plays their part in the story, with the possible exception of the monks – they felt comparatively undeveloped and purposeless, even though there was an important place in the novel for them to fill.
There are some interesting issues considered here, mostly to do with sexuality and gender. It is this human element of the story that is developed at the cost of some of the science fiction. I didn’t think that the science and process of cloning were explained clearly enough and almost no time at all was spent on the past war. It’s all left very vague, although it’s quite possible that this was intentional – memory is another theme of the book. How can clones remember the past and what does the past matter when time is meaningless?
My main issue with The Fortress at the End of Time is with its relentless doom and gloom. Aldo is not a cheery character, which is hardly surprising, but he’s also not very likeable (or even likeable at all) and this adds to the general despair of the novel. There is some lightness – love and families – but conditions are so hard that love doesn’t often fare well. Aldo certainly does his best to do it harm. There is a religious element which isn’t fully explored in the novel and so, when it rears its head later in the book very unexpectedly, it rather felt like I’d been bludgeoned with it. If there are answers here, I can’t agree with them.
This is a short (about 300 pages) and fast read and, as I mentioned, it is an immersive one. The Fortress at the End of Time is full of premise and promise but not all of it delivers, creating issues that are exacerbated by the unremitting gloom and negativity. There were lots of elements that I enjoyed and it is most certainly an intriguing novel but my mood was dark when I put it down for the final time.